On the final day of Joey Ortiz’s most recent stint with the Orioles, his manager made an admission.
“I just haven’t gotten him in there enough,” Brandon Hyde said Sunday after praising the infielder’s defense.
Ortiz was optioned to Triple-A the following morning in favor of Jordan Westburg, another top 100 infield prospect. After making his MLB debut in late April, Ortiz was on Baltimore’s roster for 24 games across three stints as he yo-yoed between Triple-A and the majors. In that time, he totaled just 34 plate appearances.
Could the same thing happen to Westburg?
The promotion of the club’s No. 4 prospect, according to Baseball America, on Monday was uplifting, as Westburg checked several boxes, including his first RBI, hit and web gem. In the wake of the excitement, though, are tough decisions the Orioles’ brass and Hyde have to make regarding the daily construction of their infield.
When Ortiz, the club’s No. 5 prospect, was in the majors, that calculation — for better or worse — ended with him normally occupying a spot on the bench. Perhaps it will be different for Westburg, who is ranked higher on prospect lists and put up better and more consistent numbers in the minors than Ortiz. Whether Westburg becomes an everyday player, like Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson before him, or serves a part-time role, like Ortiz and Kyle Stowers, remains to be seen.
Five players are now part of this puzzle, but only three spots are available. Getting the most out of this group will be a tough needle to thread, but the ability (or inability) to do so will play a key role in the club’s pursuit of a playoff spot as well as how it handles promotions of future prospects.
Hyde, naturally, did not delineate how he would divvy up playing time at second base, shortstop and third moving forward. He said no particular configuration would be “set in stone,” adding he’d “mix and match” the group of players.
“With the amount of talent we have on our roster, I think that’s gonna be fantastic to be able to move guys around a little bit, get guys off their feet once in a while,” Hyde said. “To be able to have as much depth as we can, it’s gonna be fortunate.”
The players in this equation — Jorge Mateo, Adam Frazier, Ramón Urías, Henderson and Westburg — were either in full-time roles last season or are young enough prospects that consistent playing time is, in theory, preferred for their development.
Henderson entered the season as the No. 1 prospect in the sport and has emerged as one of the team’s top hitters versus right-handed pitchers. Mateo was one of the game’s top defensive shortstops in 2022, although he’s in the midst of a two-month slump. Urías is also an elite defender on top of being a league average hitter, but his power has diminished this year. Frazier was paid $8 million this offseason, but neither his batting average nor defensive metrics are where they’ve been in the past. And Westburg … who knows? He was outstanding in Triple-A, but the 24-year-old only has two big league games under his belt.
The first two trials of this new experiment were not necessarily representative of how the pileup will play out, as both came against left-handed starting pitchers. Westburg started both games at second base, while Frazier, who bats from the left side, was on the bench. Mateo started both at shortstop, while Urías also started both, one at third and one at first (a position he’s played only a handful of games this season as Ryan Mountcastle remains sidelined with vertigo). Henderson, meanwhile, wasn’t in Monday’s lineup but did start Tuesday; the left-handed hitter has been in the lineup for 17 of the club’s 28 games versus left-handed starters.
Tuesday’s contest demonstrated the positional flexibility at Hyde’s disposal. In the eighth inning, Hyde made six defensive changes, with players moving all over the field. Four of his outfielders can play center field, and he has three infielders he can use at second, short and third, including Westburg, who has experience playing all three in the minors.
“I feel like we have a lot of guys that contribute,” Hyde said. “A lot of the good teams right now have platoons with a really good bench and guys that play a lot. I expect our guys to play a lot.”
By looking solely at offensive numbers, Mateo and Frazier are the two who could see their playing time affected the most — the former versus right-handed starters, the latter against lefties — as both have been well-below average at the plate this season.
After a scorching April as the club’s best hitter, Mateo has fallen off a cliff in May and June, with his OPS falling from a team-best 1.062 to a team-worst .617. Mateo, whose monstrous April was credited to his new toe tap, said he’s been “trying to do too much” and wasn’t feeling himself at the plate earlier this month. He feels like he’s turned a corner recently, though, after reaching base twice on both Sunday and Monday.
“I’ve been working really hard to get my rhythm back at the plate,” Mateo said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “I think I’m starting to get my rhythm back now, and I’m starting to feel a lot more confident at the plate.”
Despite his struggles with the bat, Hyde said he believes Mateo, who won the 2022 Fielding Bible Award as the best defensive shortstop in baseball, makes up for his offensive deficiencies with his glove.
“If we don’t play well up the middle, we’re going to have problems,” Hyde said. “[Mateo] has really played outstanding shortstop defense for us once again this year.”
Frazier, meanwhile, hasn’t returned to his former self the way fellow bounce-back candidates Kyle Gibson and Aaron Hicks have. The 31-year-old Frazier has sandwiched a solid May with a below average April and a poor June. He’s slashing .228/.297/.382, although his expected batting average based on quality of contact is more than 50 points higher than his actual figure, according to Baseball Savant, suggesting he’s received bad batted-ball luck and could be due for positive regression.
“The plate appearances are still good. He still manages his at-bat extremely well,” Hyde said. “I’m hoping some of these balls fall for him.”
Hyde said managing his infield “hasn’t been challenging up to this point,” noting, fairly, that his team is one of the best in the American League with a 48-30 record. But the final four words of that quote — “up to this point” — could be prescient, as Westburg’s promotion, and potentially those of outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad later this season, will only complicate the lineup logjam further.
Whether it’s Ortiz, Westburg, Cowser or Kjerstad, once prospects reach the majors, Hyde said their development is secondary to the overall goal.
“We’re gonna bring guys up here if we feel like they can help us win,” Hyde said. “We feel like Jordan can help us win, impact our team positively. It’s not a development situation. We’re trying to win games.”
Source: Berkshire mont